“There is too much Nutella in the cornetto.”
Not the words you hope to hear while trudging up the craggy slope of the most active volcano in Europe, in the wrong footwear. Clouds of black dust kicked up into my nostrils. A white butterfly posed starkly against dried black lava.
“Come, ragas, I want to show you something. These are lava bombs. I am standing on thiiiiiiick liquid. The lava! It went splat-ta! Like pizza dough!” Our guide Vincenzio gesticulated at his bedraggled group, inwardly asking themselves why they’d volunteered to tackle Mount Etna in a heatwave.
“A big mama. She-”
A robotic siren interrupted Vincenzio mid-flow, screeching from a startled septuagenarian’s Nokia. A teenager patted down his jean pocket, confused. Yep, it was coming from his, too. Then… was that mine? Vincenzio’s phone started ringing. Surely not…
He turned away from the gathering semicircle of slack-jawed, one-time explorers regretting their life choices. The “Craters of 2002” tour — the shortest and easiest hike offered by Guide Vulcanologiche Etna Nord — had piqued my interest. I was cognizant of my limitations following a week of mainlining wine and arancini in Sicily. Now I was poised to phone loved ones for my final farewell.
“Hah. Hmmm. Oh.”
A voice crackled from his radio holster.
“Even the tourists.”
The ragazzi held one collective breath.
“A test, guys! The government made a test. We heard they might try this soon. So, it works! Mamma mia! Let’s go, huh?”
Presumably powered by extra red blood cells gained from working at high altitude, Vincenzio marched on, unfazed. “See this cannoli, no cream?” he pointed at a stretch of black rock with a hole running through it. “Gas bubbles. Cool. You know, you can actually visit Etna during an eruption. We are always monitoring her. If you want to see the show!”
Too spooked to stick around for the matinee, we slid down the crumbling hill towards home. Pointing at the coast just visible from our vantage point, he continued.
“Now you are skiing! On Etna, you can ski and hit the beach on the same day. Get a beautiful and fantastic beer. Take a seat and watch the Sicilians ski down this slope” — he pointed forward — “and make impact — slap! — with this giiiiiant tree trunk. We built a special hospital just for them.”
Vincenzio warned us to carefully remove the souvenirs we collected in our shoes, lest we set off metal detectors before our flights home. He handed me a tiny, perfectly hexagonal lump of rock, “full of magnesium and aluminum.” I pocketed it, not really knowing why.
Two cortados later, my comrade and I made the hour’s drive to Linguaglossa, a sleepy, foodie town in Catania. We fell in the door at bed and breakfast Palazzo Previtera, caked in ash. Mild-mannered Alfio Puglisi welcomed us into his personal treasure trove, all smiles.
We peeled our socks off, feeling the cool stone underfoot as the art collector led us to the piano nobile, the floor where his ancestors once lived. He pointed out stunning original features, walls restored to the brilliant turquoise the flamboyant silk farmers once favored. This was no ordinary B&B; a seventeenth-century palazzo now functioning as a “living museum” with all the mod cons. We cooed over the retro Franke kitchen in dazzling white, its fridge stuffed with only oranges and Prosecco. The Juliet balcony in our Alia suite looked out over lush hills and an old bell tower. Perfect.
Our new friend caught us exchanging looks that said, “what a find.”
“It’s a bit of a building. Come.”
He ran his hand along a smooth column from 800 AD. “Made of lava,” he began. I spotted a period vase decorated with Alfio’s family crest, dated 1880. We passed through lounges, salons, a chapel and music rooms painted the full rainbow, draped in a riot of heavy, technicolor fabrics. Alfio’s library of around 2,000 books houses a handful dating back as far as 1497. “We have documents from the Pope as well,” he added casually, producing tea-colored papers awash with spindly cursive.
Alfio pointed out influences from Naples, Turkey and Iran, intricate modern and ancient works by Dutch and Italian designers. A bit of a building, indeed.
“We’re collaborating with an ancient textile manufacturing laboratory soon, the name of which we’ll release next year.”
It’d be easy to start feeling unaccomplished, even a little jealous, if Alfio weren’t so damned likable. We smiled as he told the story of his uncle counting among the first to plant avocados in Sicily. He led us around his charming botanical garden, flanked by cats, and strewn with wildflowers. Grapes lay dead on the vine; a late summer had seen mold creep in and ruin the crop.
“Vintage Sicilian wine collectors… they’re having a great year,” Alfio sighed. But so was Alfio, becoming quite famous for his creative breakfast spreads.
“Oh! I’m writing a cookbook. During summer we have fresh berries, peas, broad beans, basil, of course. I add them to yogurt. Very simple breakfast recipes.”
We wandered through the quiet town, poking our heads in every forno, duomo and cafe. Around the corner sits Michelin star restaurant, Shalai, but the modest local offerings more than compare.
Eggs, cornetti, fruit, yogurt, hams and cheeses were artfully arranged on an outdoor table in dappled sunlight the next day. Whiling away the morning with Mount Etna visible just beyond, the reasons for the enduring American obsession with Italy remained obvious. You just can’t beat la dolce vita — particularly when it’s bolstered by a smash hit HBO series.
“Sicily is busy. The White Lotus effect! Where do you go next?”
We’d planned one last stop in the dizzying hilltop town of Taormina — unbeknown to us, the show’s main location. Big mistake?
“Taormina is amazing, of course. Super busy, especially now! San Domenico Palace is incredible.”
Built into rocky headland with sea views the definition of dramatic, the Four Seasons hotel served as the perfect place to end our Sicilian odyssey. Possibly the only tourists on the island who hadn’t seen the show, bagging a last-minute lunch reservation at the spot made famous by Jennifer Coolidge and friends (almost) felt unfair.
Once beloved by Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor and Tennessee Willliams, the cool, converted fourteenth-century convent felt immediately special. Original monks quarters have been converted into lavish bedrooms, breezy courtyards filled with towering plant fronds. At this very spot, Greta Garbo holidayed for three decades under the pseudonym Harriet Brown. I imagined her reading underneath one of the voguish Dolce & Gabbana umbrellas now dotting the cliff top pool. The fashion houses’ iconic blue and white Blu Mediterraneo motif had appeared overnight that summer, in a couldn’t-be-more-Italian guerrilla takeover. Guests were delighted as they padded outside for a morning swim, the print washing over towels, plant pots and a poolside ice cream truck.
We wondered what the monks would have made of it all, their chapel still intact yards away. We looked out over the glittering sea hugging magnificent Taormina Bay, sipping signature cocktails from mini ceramic Moorish heads. Poolside Anciovi restaurant served up linguine with lobster, cherry tomatoes and zucchini, then pizza with Bronte pistachio and black truffle, and a pitch-perfect tiramisù.
Twice since our return, Mount Etna has made the news, Nutella slowly oozing out of the cornetto. I think about Vincenzio, and that little piece of rock now sequestered in a drawer somewhere (the only alarm that didn’t sound on that trip turned out to be the airport’s). I find myself in a bakery ordering a croissant, but there’s nothing like the real thing.
Amy Rose Everett was a guest of Palazzo Previtera and Anciovi.